If you ask Wes Anderson which of the four main narratives in his fanciful-as-ever twee dollhouse of a faux-anthology, The French Dispatch, will be most beloved by audiences, he might outright reject the premise and denounce the existence of a competition. The subtle truth lurking within these seemingly unrelated tales — or merely held together by the loose string of being lifestyle pieces for the last issue of a niche 70s newspaper — is that they’re all essentially telling the same story, much like Anderson’s films as a whole thus far. When you break it down, truly break it down, aren’t all stories essentially the same?
And if all stories are the same, it’s no wonder Anderson goes several extra miles in dressing them up to be as unique and quirk-filled as possible, otherwise, even if he is adapting a multitude of disparate cinematic languages we’ve already seen from him a dozen times over. That’s no problem considering how rare these visual flourishes of perfectly symmetrical, perfectly timed analog settings trigger the Pavlovian expectation of seeing a put-upon civilian arch their back just shy of 90 degrees to regard the camera with the knowing expression of a director. Wes Anderson knows he can ring a bell and have cinephiles lining up for more.
The French Dispatch is one of those times they’re lining up for something a bit more out of the ordinary and, ultimately, more rewarding than the norm. The plot, deceptively rudimentary as it is, involves the editor of the titular dispatch (Bill Murray) fittingly dispatching his team of journalists to finalize their fit-to-print entries in what will be the newspaper’s last issue. Billed as an American publication nevertheless based out of the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun doles out neatly told stories about life and art and the meaning of life and art within the congested, unforgettable crannies of Anderson’s latest modern wonderland, a place in time even more thoroughly, lovingly detailed than his Grand Budapest Hotel.
If set dressing and the utilization of visual splendor for its own sake were its only true rewards, The French Dispatch would align nicely with the quality of the good, but not lasting Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s previous film that lost itself in a cloud of conflicting ideas. By contrast, his new effort has remarkably less focus, and intentionally so, but the end result oddly, confoundedly delivers one of Anderson’s most profound statements on individuality and the human condition. Which means, by the estimation of many, that this is one of cinema’s most profound statements on individuality and the human condition in recent memory.
Revealing too many of the details within the short stories themselves would rob so much pleasure out of discovering these moments for yourself. Put broadly, the film covers far more territory than the tiny town of Ennui might reasonably fit — an obvious contradiction, considering “Ennui” literally means “boredom.”
There are student revolutionaries, grand kidnapping schemes, and even an art-world-changing love affair set within an asylum. All boasting a never-ending cast list of familiar faces from some of today’s most beguiling actors: Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Benicio del Toro, Timothée Chalamet, Elisabeth Moss, and that’s only the start.
The French Dispatch also has no shortage of excuses for Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman (who previously collaborated with him on The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom, among others) to employ carousels of whimsy in every packed scene, as well as a purposeful trading of art styles and color filters meant to evoke the contrast between past, present, and future. All of it leading somewhere even more purposeful regarding its commentary on the written word, even if it’s hard to pinpoint until the film’s fourth narrative, wherein the overarching story of the Dispatch itself reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Rarely does a film with this much meandering manage to make its rolling of credits feel so premature. But the finality of it is a strength, a coping mechanism Anderson probably dedicates privately to his fans, who will no doubt live in a world, someday, when the polarizing auteur no longer makes films. Conversely, the film’s clear celebration of The New Yorker, complete with a colorful, wondrous turnstile of covers that cycle through the end credits, means that Anderson knows that while the writers and artisans might move on from their work at magazines, newspapers, and yes, movie studios, there will always be new voices right around the corner to preserve the legacy of individual expression by producing a cavalcade of their own.
The French Dispatch opens in U.S. theaters on October 22. Watch the official trailer here.